The politicization of race relations divides the public

August 01, 2020, 6:45 PM UTC

Many Americans in the latest Economist/YouGov Poll find it difficult to change what is already in place. That is especially true when it comes to removing Confederate statues and renaming military bases. Some Americans may be taking a cue from the President, who has raised objections to both. Others may be attached to the monuments; some may just not want to lose what is there now. 

There is an even division when it comes to removing statues of those who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, and an even split on the question of renaming bases named for Confederate leaders. Both questions divide white and Blacks Americans as well as and Republicans and Democrats. 

Four in 10 (40%) Americans say they approve of renaming military bases named for Confederate leaders, but roughly the same amount (42%) disapprove of the decision. A majority (56%) of Black Americans approve of the decision, while far fewer (38%) white Americans say the same.  

White Southerners are particularly opposed to removing Confederate statues from the US Capitol. Nearly a third of white Americans living in the South support removal (32%), but nearly twice as many oppose removing them (59%). (The House of Representatives has voted to remove the statues, but the Senate has yet to vote on the issue) 

Both Houses passed the Defense Authorization Bill, which includes the requirement to rename military bases named for Confederate Generals. The two versions need to be reconciled before final passage. As on the question of removing Confederate statues, white Southerners oppose renaming bases, 29 percent to 54 percent.  

Perceptions of American race relations is more a matter of politics than might be expected. Roughly half of those who plan on voting for President Trump this fall describe race relations in the US as generally good (53%). Just 16 percent of those supporting Joe Biden think that. That’s not just because Black Americans (who are more pessimistic than whites about the state of American race relations) are mostly voting for the Democrat. More than eight in 10 white Americans voting for Biden think race relations in the US are bad.  

Chart 

While  white Americans voting for Biden are negative about race relations today (68% of them believe racism is a big problem in the US, nearly as high as the 71% of Black Americans who think that), they are more optimistic than white Trump supporters when it comes to what they expect will happen in the future, and far more optimistic than Black Americans are. Most white supporters for Joe Biden believe race relations will improve in the next ten years. 

It’s not the case, however, that future optimism stems from the negative assessment of current race relations. Among the entire public, those who say race relations are good today are more likely than those who think the opposite to expect them to get even better in the future.  

The issue of civil rights remains most important to Black Americans. One in four blacks say it is their most important issue, putting it just above health care, which along with jobs is ranked at number one among the public overall.  

Four years ago, Trump voters placed immigration near the top of their issue concerns. This year, there are several issues that matter more. But like 2016, Trump supporters rank the relative importance of issues very differently from those supporting the Democrat. For Trump supporters, jobs and the economy rank first, followed by national security/foreign policy, health care and taxes/government spending. Immigration is fifth in importance. Biden voters care about health care first, then climate change and the environment, then civil rights, followed by jobs and the economy.  Health care and jobs are the only two issues that rank near the top of both sets of voters’ lists. 

Related: A reality check on the Trump-Biden enthusiasm gap 

See the full toplines and tables from this week’s The Economist/YouGov poll

Methodology: This Economist survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,500 U.S. adult citizens interviewed online between July 26 - 28, 2020. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the US Bureau of the Census, as well as 2016 Presidential vote, registration status, geographic region, and news interest. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all US citizens. The margin of error is approximately 3.5% for the overall sample. 

Image: Getty